Norfolk grower Rob Alexander has turned his back on the headline output of one high capacity rotary combine in favour of two smaller straw walker models. Geoff Ashcroft asks whether his decision was justified.
Rotary combines have long been criticised for their perceived inability to deliver high quality straw. For many growers though, a rotary’s harvesting output remains the top priority, with straw quality and quantity being the compromise.
But Rob Alexander of A.J. Alexander and Son, Bush Green Farm, Diss, has taken a different approach to combine performance. Despite his John Deere S680i producing a clean sample and impressive output, the deteriorating straw quality it left behind was an issue for Mr Alexander and his customers.
With livestock farms, poultry businesses and power stations in the area, he has identified a healthy market for good quality straw. And as a result, this overlooked resource was an area not being fully exploited.
He says: “A lot of my customers really wanted much better straw quality than our S680i could deliver, which left us chewing over some difficult machinery buying decisions last winter,” he says.
Anxious not to take a backward step with harvesting output, he says an equally important option was to have a little extra capacity to move forward should the workload increase.
And given the business is already handling an 850-hectare workload, getting the buying dilemma sorted was even more challenging.
“To get the best straw, the only real option was to use a straw walker combine,” he says. “But should a straw walker model join our rotary to maintain output? Would that be too much capacity in addition to cost? Could we cover the workload exclusively with one six-walker machine, or should we switch to two smaller straw walker models?”
It was a thought process which eventually led to a pair of John Deere T560i five-walker models with 22ft headers replacing the S680i and its larger 35ft header.
Rob Alexander is very pleased with his decision to swap one high capacity rotary combine for two smaller straw walker models
“On paper, this would give us the increased straw quality we wanted, but importantly, we could make the change without sacrificing harvesting output,” he says.
“And if we do find ourselves looking at adding a whole lot more acres to the business, I reasoned I could swap one of the T560s for a higher capacity six-walker combine.”
When it came to in-field logistics, Mr Alexander believed the two combines would improve efficiency with field to store haulage, making the most of the farm’s 14-tonne and 18t grain trailers.
“With our S680i, we had too much waiting time,” he says. “After taking a grain tank load from the combine, each trailer tended to sit and wait to be topped up. This was an area of frustration and was not the best use of labour or equipment.”
But with two combines, he reasoned each trailer driver could accept a grain tank from the first combine, then move to the second combine, before topping-off the trailer if required by revisiting the first combine on the way out of the field.
And with the season’s harvest now safely in the barn, has he made the right decision?
“Most definitely,” he says. “We have achieved a much higher combined output in tonnes/hour, with the two. And we have been able to serve our customer base so much better.”
n wheat, Mr Alexander reports each combine has recorded an average output of 29t/hour, with the combined output comfortably beating his S680i. And spot work rates have nudged 36t/hour.
“I’m sure we’d still be chasing harvest this season if we hadn’t had the two smaller combines,” he says. “Yes, we’ve had hardly any breakdowns – the odd knife section – but these are simple, straightforward combines. We can just turn the key and go.”
When both combines have worked together, Mr Alexander has based the starting point off A-B lines put in using the farm’s self-propelled sprayer. This has ensured blocks of land have been cut as efficiently as possible, with making the most of header widths.
Although the key to achieving optimum performance, he believes, has been not to run the two combines together in the same field.
“We’ve had them together only for about 30% of the time. We found by separating them, we could make logistics much more efficient.”
The farm has been running three trailers throughout harvest – two 18 tonners, taking two to three tanks of grain each, and one 14-tonner capable of holding two tanks of grain.
“We chose to send the two 18 tonners off with the combine working the farthest distance from home,” he says. “Two trailers running further distances has meant we’ve cut down on waiting times in the field, and made the most of travelling time back to store.”
“And the combine working nearest to home was supported by the smaller 14-tonner. A fourth trailer would be handy – but it’s not a necessity.”
Additional productivity came from the combines’ smaller headers, highlighting just how clumsy bigger machines can be.
“On some of our customers’ farms with smaller fields, we do have a lot of moves to make between fields. But with smaller headers, we’ve been able to get better access to fields without taking off and refitting headers as much as we would have done with the 35ft header.”
“And this has saved us a total of about eight hours throughout the summer.”
Such productivity improvements are easy enough to reconcile through the combine’s performance monitor.
The combine working nearest to home can be supported by a 14ft trailer, leaving 18 tonnes to handle longer hauls
“When you look at the information in Greenstar, we’ve not suffered a lot of non-harvesting time,” he says. “When the combines are running, they’re pretty much straight into work.”
And less downtime means more harvesting time for the Alexander team. Daily outputs have been 25-30ha/day.
And importantly, the two combines have also delivered the straw quality Mr Alexander’s customers want.
“Rape aside, we chop very little straw, and almost all of what comes out of the combine is sold in the swath. And this summer, all the baling contractors who have followed us have commented on the quality and quantity of straw,” he says.
“I no longer have to defend the quality of straw which we leave behind.”
Sample quality from the straw walker combines is better too.
“The T-series is very easy to set up,” he says. “And cutting at about 4-4.5kph, we’re not rushing around in fields, and we’re able to take pretty much all the chaff out of our sample. The grain arriving back in the stores is noticeably cleaner.”
Despite the combines being purchased on a five-year replacement policy, he is already weighing up the options for further combine capacity, should more acres become available in the future.
“The two T560s have done a lot more than where I set my expectations,” he adds.
“So would I still swap a five-walker combine for a six? Doubtful. I don’t believe adding one more walker will give us enough of an improvement in capacity. Though I would consider adding a third, five-walker combine to the fleet if the workload would allow it.”
But rather than buy new, he would consider a used machine to help spread the replacement policy and soak up any extra acres.
“And there are far more buyers for a used five-walker machine than there are for a six-walker combine, which makes it much easier to keep your options open,” he adds.